Peptic ulcers are sores that happen on the lining of the stomach or the small intestine. These cause burning stomach pain.

Smoking, drinking too much alcohol or a variety of medical factors such as stomach cancer or even radiation therapy can cause peptic ulcers. Peptic ulcers can be defined as damage or sores on the lining of the digestive track; stomach, esophagus and small intestine. These sores are caused because of a bacterial infection called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) in the stomach, and may lead to a burning sensation in your stomach, among other side effects.

Peptic ulcers are a fairly common problem. According to the US National Institute of Health, people stand a 5 to 10 percent risk of developing it. Peptic ulcers are caused when there is an imbalance in digestive juices. Long-term use of anti-inflammatory drugs can also cause peptic ulcers. The basic symptoms of peptic ulcers include nausea, weight loss as well as chest pain. The treatment of these ulcers depends on what is causing it, and that is treated first. Over the counter medication is also given for peptic ulcers.

What are peptic ulcers?

Peptic ulcers occur due to excessive stomach acid, causing damage to the lining of the digestive tract. These ulcers are open sores that can be seen on the lining of the stomach as well as the small intestine. There are two kinds of peptic ulcers: gastric ulcers that are situated inside the stomach, and duodenal ulcers that are situated in the upper portion of the small intestine. The National Institute of Health states that duodenal ulcers are four times more common than gastric ulcers.

Symptoms of peptic ulcers

The most common symptom of peptic ulcers is a feeling of burning around the stomach area, just under the rib cage. “The pain may be severe and may occur before or after meals. In rare cases, patients may experience acute bleeding,” says surgical gastroenterologist Dr Govind Nandakumar. Other symptoms include:

  • Bloating and belching
  • Heart burn
  • Nausea
  • No appetite
  • Bloody stools
  • Chest pain

What causes peptic ulcers?

There are a few lifestyle habits, drug use and medical procedures that can cause peptic ulcers. There are as follows:

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1. Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori)

This is a bacterial infection called in the stomach. This leads to inflammation in the stomach. H. Pylori is a bacteria that weakens the protective coating on the stomach. This, then, allows acid to go through the lining, which is a very senistive area.  It can irritate and cause a sore on the lining.

2. Excessive alcohol consumption

Excessive alcohol can lead to peptic ulcers as alcohol can often irritate and even weaken the lining of the stomach, and this can result in an inflammation. A study, published in Current Phramaceutical Design, suggests that limiting alcohol consumption can help prevent as well as heal peptic ulcers.

3. Stress

Yes, one of the most surprising peptic ulcer causes is stress. A study, published in Medicine journal, studied the association between psychological stress such as depression, suicidal thoughts as well as the occurrence of peptic ulcers. Depression and severe stress were linked to the occurrence of peptic ulcers, the study concluded.

A girl smoking a cigarette
Smoking excessively, as well as excessive alcohol consumption can lead to the formation of peptic ulcers. Image courtesy: Pexels

4. Tobacco use

Peptic ulcers can happen to people who excessively smoke. A study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, evaluated the association between peptic ulcer risks and smoking amongst the women in the US. It was seen that smokers were 1.8 times more at risk of developing peptic ulcers than those who never smoked.

5. Certain cancer treatments

Cancer treatments such as radiotherapy or radiation is also a cause of peptic ulcer. This is a complication of the therapy that usually happens within the first two months after completion.

Diagnostic tests for peptic ulcers

When patients present with suspicion of peptic ulcers, there are two types of tests that need to be conducted in order to determine a peptic ulcer.

Upper endoscopy

The primary evaluation is upper endoscopy, which is the standard of care at present. Here, the doctor will put a camera down your throat, with the help of a long tube. This will examine the ulcers in the stomach and the small intestine. In fact, this test can also remove tissue samples that can be tested for further examination. This test is done if you are above 45 years, and have a high risk of getting stomach cancer.

Upper GI test

In this test, the patient will drink a liquid called barium. Then an X ray of your stomach, esophagus and small intestine will be taken. Next, the doctor will study the film, and diagnose the peptic ulcers.

How to treat a peptic ulcer?

Acid suppression agents such as histamine (H2) blockers and, more recently, proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), have altered peptic ulcer disease treatment. “The patient rarely requires surgery for treatment. Proton pump inhibitors, for example, are very effective at controlling the disease,” says Dr Nandakumar. Additionally, if the patient has a H pylori infection, it is treated with a combination regimen to cure the disease. H. pylori is a bacterium that increases the risk of ulcer and acid formation.

A girl having a pill
Excessive use of anti-inflammatory drugs can also lead to the formation of peptic ulcers. Image courtesy: Pexels

What happens if you don’t treat peptic ulcers?

If a peptic ulcer is not treated, it can become worse and lead to serious complications such as perforation. Here, a small hole is formed in your stomach or the small intestine lining. This can cause an infection. You can also suffer from internal bleeding. Black stools is generally a sign for this, as well as feeling lightheaded and dizzy. Also, the sores may end up leaving scar issues which makes it tough for your body to digest the food.

How to prevent peptic ulcers?

Peptic ulcers can be prevented by certain lifestyle changes such as :

  • Being mindful of your diet
  • Avoiding triggers such as alcohol, tobacco, and excessive caffeine consumption
  • Not taking too much stress
  • Limiting the use of medicines such as ibuprofen, aspirin, and naproxen (Aleve)
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